“Security. It would set off an alarm if he were removed from the building.”
Claire took a quick breath, recalling the thought she had had briefly: I could take him.
“All the newchildren wear them. I’m not sure why. Who would want one?” The man chuckled. “I’ll take his off when I take him with me at the end of the day.”
The infant slept on, and the man murmured to him quietly. “Good boy,” she could hear him say. “Coming home with me tonight? That’s a good, good boy.”
He turned away, still murmuring, and took the newchild back to his crib. Watching and listening, Claire thought she heard the nurturer whisper a name. But she couldn’t quite make out what it was. Abe? Was that it? It sounded, she thought, like Abe.
Claire didn’t attend the Ceremony. Almost everyone in the community did, every year. But each facility needed to leave someone in charge, and Claire had volunteered to stay at the Hatchery. The Birthmothers, the Vessels, were exempt, and so Claire had not attended the two previous years either; and now she found that she didn’t have much interest in the two-day event anymore.
The Naming and Placement of Newchildren was always first on the program, so that the infants could be taken away and cared for during the remaining hours, and wouldn’t be disruptive. Claire would have wanted desperately to attend the Ceremony if her own child, Abe (she was trying to think of him now by the name she had overheard) were to be given to a parental pair. But it would be another year for him, and she had little interest in watching the placements of the others.
Neither did she care much about the Matching of Spouses. Like Claire, most people found the Matching boring—important, of course, but with few surprises. When an adult member of the community applied for a spouse, the committee pondered for months, sometimes even years, making the selection, matching the characteristics—energy level, intelligence, industriousness, other traits—that would make two people compatible. The spouse pairs were announced each year at the Ceremony and shared a dwelling after that. Their pairing was watched and monitored for three years, after which they could apply for a child, if they wished. The Assignment of the Newchild, when they received one, was actually more exciting than the Matching.
Thinking about it as she wandered the halls of the empty lab, so quiet and unoccupied today, Claire found herself wondering, suddenly, if she would be able to apply for a spouse. As Birthmother, she had not been eligible. But now? Rolf, her coworker, had put in an application and was waiting. And so had Dimitri, she’d heard. Could she? She wasn’t old enough yet. But when she was? She didn’t know. The regulations for ordinary citizens were so clear, so well known, so carefully followed. But Claire’s situation was unusual. And she had been given very little information when she was dismissed and transferred to the Hatchery. It was as if they had lost interest in her. They. She wasn’t even sure who they were. The Elders. The committees. The voices that made announcements over the speakers, like the message this morning: PLEASE GATHER AT THE AUDITORIUM FOR THE OPENING OF THE CEREMONY.
She glanced at the time. It was late morning now. The spouses would be paired, the newchildren named and assigned. Soon there would be a lunch break, with tables set up and lunch packets distributed, outside the Auditorium. Then they would reconvene for the beginning of the Advance in Age and the rituals of growing older.
The younger children were presented in groups: all the Sevens, for example, receiving their front-buttoned jackets; the Nines, brought to the stage and given their first bicycles to great applause. Haircuts for all the Tens, with the little girls losing their braids, and then the sweepers coming quickly to the stage to remove the shorn hair. But the Advance in Age Ceremonies usually moved quickly along, to applause—and some laughter as well, because every year someone burst into tears for one reason or another, or felt compelled to show off on the stage and did something foolish.
Claire had participated in those rituals throughout her childhood. She didn’t mind missing them now.
The Ceremony of Twelve, which would begin on the second morning, was always the highlight. Here was when the unexpected could happen, as the children received their Life Assignments. It had always been fun, watching the Assignments given out. Until her own, of course.
Well. It was in the past. But she was happy not to be there today, in the audience, watching as other young girls heard that they too had been found fit only to breed.
It seemed odd, the silence with everyone gone for the day. There was not much, really, for her to do; she was simply required to be there, to be certain nothing went awry. But everything—the temperature in the labs, the humidity, even the lighting—was carefully calibrated and controlled. Claire checked the screen of her computer periodically for incoming Hatchery messages, but nothing was urgent.
She glanced through a window at the supply boat that was moored at the dock. It had arrived at a bad time. With the Ceremony taking place, they would have to wait two days before they could unload. Probably, she realized, they’d be happy to have some time free of work. She wondered what the crew was doing on this unexpected vacation. She had watched them previously, and heard them, lifting and stacking and carrying and directing. Their clothes were different; they didn’t wear the loose-fitting tunic of the community. And they spoke with a slight accent, an inflection that was unfamiliar.
Claire had never been curious about those from Elsewhere. It was part of the contentment she had always known. Here had always been enough.
Now, through the window, she stared at the heavy-laden moored boat and found herself wondering about its crew.
That lunch was pretty awful, wasn’t it?”
Eric entered the lobby of the Hatchery with the others at the end of the day. The group was noisy and laughing, obviously happy to be finished with the hours of ritual, sitting, paying attention, politely applauding.
“It wasn’t so bad,” one of the other workers replied. “Just wasn’t enough of it! I’m still hungry.”
Claire was seated at the receptionist’s desk. “It’s almost time for dinner,” she told them. “How was the Ceremony?”
“Fine,” someone said. “They got all the way through the Elevens, so there’s only the Ceremony of Twelve left for tomorrow morning.”
“Good. It went smoothly, then. No children misbehaved or had a tantrum,” Claire said, laughing.
“Nope. No surprises at all,” Edith told her.
“Except maybe for Dimitri,” Eric announced.
Everyone chuckled. “He thought he’d be assigned a spouse. He was on the edge of his seat. But they didn’t call his name.”
“Oops. That means he has another whole year to wait,” Claire said.
“Or more!” Eric pointed out. “There have been people who waited years for matching.”
“Well, it’s for the best,” Edith commented. “There probably wasn’t a good match for him available this time.”
A young man whose name Claire didn’t know had been listening. “He only applied for a spouse because he wanted a dwelling,” he said. “He’s tired of living in the dorm.” He turned, seeing Dimitri come through the door. “Even though he gets a special suite, for being director. Isn’t that right, Dimitri? You’re sick of the dorm, right?”
Dimitri crushed the program he was carrying into a wadded ball, and tossed it at the young man. “I’m sick of living with you, that’s all!” He grinned, picked up the paper where it had fallen, and tossed it into the trash receptacle.
They hung their jackets on the row of pegs beside the front door. “Everything quiet here, Claire?” someone asked.
She nodded. “A couple of the boatmen came ashore and went for a walk. I saw them strolling along the river path.”
“Those guys are so odd,” Eric commented. “They never talk to anyone.”
“Maybe it’s against their rules,” Claire suggested.
“Could be. Elsewhere probably has completely different rules.”
“Actually, talking to them might be against our rules. Has anyone checked?” Edith asked.
Everyone groaned and most of them glanced at the large monitor on the receptionist’s desk.
It occurred to Claire that she could check on the rules and answer her own question about whether she could apply for a spouse. But did she care, really? Enough to make her way through the lengthy index and perhaps find her answer in a sub-subparagraph or footnote? Probably not, she thought.
The loud rasp of the buzzer summoned them all to the cafeteria for the evening meal. She rose and found her place in the line. From a window in the hallway, she noticed two members of the boat crew lounging on the deck of the vessel. It was heavily loaded with crates of cargo, and the two young men sat side by side, leaning against a sealed container. Each of them held a small cylinder to his mouth, and it appeared that they sucked smoke from it and then blew the smoke into the air. It was an odd custom that she had not seen before, and she wondered what its purpose was. Perhaps it was a medicinal inhaler of some sort.
The line moved forward. Conversations, laughter, and comments interrupted her thoughts. Claire approached the stack of trays, took hers from the top, and saw that Edith and Jeannette had saved a seat for her at their table. She moved ahead, holding her tray out to the serving person behind the counter, and put the boat crew out of her mind.
“What was the Naming of Newchildren like?” she asked them after she had sat down with her tray of food. “Were there any surprising names?”
“Not really,” Jeannette said, “except I was startled to hear that one, a boy, was given the name Paul. That was my father’s name.”
“But they can’t use the same name twice!” Edith said. “There are never two people in the community with the same name!”
“But they do regive names,” Claire pointed out, “after someone is gone.”
“Right. So that means my father is gone. I was surprised to hear it,” Jeannette said.
“When did you see him last?” Claire asked. She could remember her own parents, but it had been several years, and details about them had begun to fade.
Jeannette thought, and shrugged. “Probably five years. He worked in Food Production, and I never go over that way. I see the woman who was my mother now and then, though, because she’s in the landscaping crew. Not very long ago I noticed her trimming the bushes over at the edge of the recreation field. She waved when she saw me.”
“Nice,” Edith said, offhandedly. “You want the rest of that salad? Can I have it?” Jeannette nodded, and Edith reached for the half-empty plate that had been set to the side.
“Paul’s a handsome name,” Claire said, feeling a little sorry for Jeannette, though she didn’t know exactly why. “It’s nice when they reuse a good one. I remember back when I was a Ten, they named a newchild Wilhelmina, and everyone cheered, because everyone had been fond of the previous Wilhelmina before she entered the House of the Old. So when she was gone, it was nice to reuse her name.”
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